I think it was Bernard Shaw who wrote, "For a really good performance of Beethoven's Ninth I would cheerfully sit through the whole thing on a bag of nails."
Shaw didn't mention sitting through the whole thing with cries of children punctuating the music, but had he attended last weekend's performances in Atwood Concert Hall the experience might have led him to revise the sentiment. More on that in a moment.
The Anchorage Symphony last played the Beethoven capstone symphony in October 2005, an impressive and polished reading that kept the audience entranced, listening in rapt silence. This time around, the orchestra had the benefit of Atwood's new acoustic shell. It seemed to enhance the clarity of sound; I heard wind and lower strings counterpoint that I haven't caught before. But the first violins, posed somewhat outside the shell because of the crowded stage, were often hard to hear, as in the first phrase of the first movement. Also, though the climaxes in the first movement were effective, I went in hoping for more punch.
The outer parts of the Scherzo had some of that punch, but there was some stumbling in the trio and again in the slow movement. I wondered whether the musicians weren't distracted by the noisy young patrons, like the one taken out in mid-tantrum, thankfully, or the one whose crying continued even in the wind chorale of the Adagio, the most delicate passage in the work.
I don't know when the cost of a babysitter became more expensive than the cost of a ticket and made it economically impossible for concertgoers to leave the very young at home. But those with infants, at least, should arrange for child care, if not for their own enjoyment of the music then for the sake of the rest of the audience. There was a time when the tickets stated no one under the age of 6 would be allowed to attend and ushers enforced that prohibition.
That said, I saw several people who looked to be between 6 and 10 who behaved perfectly and attentively. A standing ovation to you. However, more than one adult passed by my seat, coming or going while the music was playing. One understands that an emergency -- or distaste for the music -- might compel a ticket holder to depart; but coming back in and having the row stand so that you can return to your seat is an inexcusable breech of concert etiquette unless the concert is being given by a metal band or you've bought the whole row and given the seats to friends and family. Possibly.
Otherwise, disrupting the ability of fellow concertgoers to indulge in the pleasure they've paid for is a form of aesthetic theft. "No re-entry" rules need to be in force once the music begins, or else a bench might be reserved at the back of the house where latecomers can be seated with minimum commotion.
Back to Beethoven: The finale featured four fine soloists: bass Kenneth Kellogg, tenor Thomas Glenn, mezzo Maria Todaro and soprano Rhoslyn Jones, positioned slightly in front of the shell. Kellogg's solo was ample on the ground floor and, I'd guess, to the back of the balcony. Glenn's solo was lighter, but he made a good showing in the ensembles. Todaro -- a conductor as well as a singer -- seemed to be enjoying the event more than anyone else, singing along with the chorus from time to time. Jones' voice was both enormous and dead-on with respect to the treacherous high notes. She's the type of singer who needs to come back if ASO ever decides to try Mahler's Symphony of a Thousand.
Which might be thinkable, at least its first movement, given what we heard from the chorus in the Beethoven. The Anchorage Concert Chorus and Alaska Chamber Singers were augmented by the West High School Concert Choir. It made for a massed choir of about 250 voices, the biggest crowd I've seen on the Atwood stage in some time, maybe ever, and a reason why the violins and soloists had to squeeze toward the front.
No matter, when the singers finally kicked in they delivered the punch I'd been anticipating. Conductor Randall Craig Fleischer's measured approach to the score was not much different from his interpretation in 2005. But the energy level that wrapped up this concert was the type of stuff said to lift listeners out of their seats.
From the epiphany that begins with the chorale, "Be embraced, ye millions," through the ensuing fugue and to the final note, the musicianship and space-filling volume of sound combined for a glorious experience, overriding memories of bawling babes and inconsiderate grown-ups and leaving us with a Beethoven's Ninth that really was worth sitting on a sack of nails.
The next season, customarily announced with the final program, remains incomplete at this time. A few items were revealed prior to the Saturday and Sunday concerts but the full lineup will be made public in the next week or so.